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Getting Philosophical About Learning and Computers

In what has to be one of the most philosophical CS papers I have ever encountered, a team of researchers from Brazil and Luxembourg have presented a fascinating overview of many issues surrounding the area of computer-based learning. In their paper, Redesigning Computer-Based Learning Environments: Evaluation as Communication, they make reference to everything from psychology to meta-communication and citing a broad yet well-chosen set of authors from Claude Shannon to Gregory Bateson. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this paper is it’s writing style. These authors have clearly given the subject a great deal of thought and have not been shy about getting philosophical while expressing their opinions. In fact, these authors have gone out of their way to use their variety of interdisciplinary sources to help illustrate the idea that issues in computer-based learning are never purely technical. One of the first communication models they discuss is the well known psychology concept of the double bind. While the concept isn’t worth explaining here (given the ubiquity of detailed explanations), their relation of the concept to educational evaluation is certainly significant.

Evaluation is also trapped in the double bind. Student and teacher or even the other characters such as colleagues and parents exchange many contradictory stimuli about learning. For example: have critical sense versus accept as truth what is in books, express yourself efficiently versus do not talk, concentrate on homework versus play with friends, etc. These situations are inherent to evaluation in the same sense the double bind is part of communication

The tensions described here are all-too-familiar to students, both past and present. Issues such as the ones mentioned in the paper are very real obstacles that must be overcome in classrooms all over while their complexities are only emphasized further by the still-developing experience of computer-based learning.

…the computer-based learning environment must support and, if possible, amplify the expression and the emergence of contradictory relations. These are essential to the evaluation process, since provocative statements may communicate how teacher and colleagues perceive one’s performance and understanding.

With this in mind, they conclude their discussion by explicitly stating the importance of letting real-world factors influence the design of learning systems. This exceptionally well thought-out piece of technical writing should be required reading for any educator considering the deployment of a computer-based learning system or struggling with the design of an alternative assessment mechanism.

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